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Talking About Islam, Mostly Past Each Other

Hitchens and Ramadan debate the ‘religion of peace’

Marc Tracy
October 06, 2010

There may not be two people less suited to addressing the resolution, “Islam is a religion of peace,” than intellectual Christopher Hitchens and Islamic scholar and professor Tariq Ramadan, who did endeavor to address it last night at 92nd Street Y. Hitchens has expounded on Ramadan in Tablet Magazine, noting his “strong sympathy for the jihadist preachings—and social and moral precepts—of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, purveyor of fatwas and self-described ‘Mufti of martyrdom operations.’” (You can find my thoughts on Ramadan in this review of Paul Berman’s recent book, The Flight of the Intellectuals.) But Hitch hates all religion. And Ramadan too often wears a blindfold when viewing his co-religionists. Consequentially, the night’s best moments came when the two played against type, or at least against their own arguments.

But first off: Hitch looked pretty good (I’ll post a photo when I get one). Diagnosed over the summer with esophogeal cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes, he filled out a well-tailored suit and seemed to stand, sit, and move with ease; the only noticeable oddity in his appearance (other than his 100 percent bald, light-reflecting pate) was a habit of moving his mouth and his tongue within it, as though chewing gum—cotton mouth is a common chemotherapy side effect.

I pity whoever has to debate Hitch: In any condition, on any subject, at any location, the man should be giving points. He is so witty, so comfortable, so good at all the little tricks of dryness and diction. He also works hard, or gives the appearance of it: For much of the introduction, by moderator Laurie Goodstein (the New York Times religion correspondent), he took extensive notes on several sheets of paper on a clipboard. While Ramadan spoke, he twirled his glasses round above his curled knee; at other times, he would put them on and look over them at the audience with a mischievous, knowing, faint smile, like an uncle who has let you have some of his beer without telling your father.

So what’s my problem with having Hitchens debate Islam? The problem is that Hitchens, who though best on other subject matters achieved widest success with his atheist polemic God Is Not Great, thinks all religion is bad. “There is no such thing as a religion of peace, by definition,” he said within two minutes of beginning his opening remarks.

And what is my problem with having Ramadan defend Islam? Because, whether you agree with him that “Islam is complex. It has a diversity of interpretations” or believe it is inherently sour, Ramadan should instead be answering questions about what he himself has said Islam is. “He made you tribes and nations in order that you may know each other,” he argued last night. “Respect the Christians. Respect the Jews.” But, as Berman and others have shown, at various times and in various ways Ramadan has suggested otherwise—most infamously when he proposed, on French national television, that a moratorium be imposed on stoning female adulterers until the Muslim community can decide for itself on the justice of the practice (a decision that, Berman persuasively argues, Ramadan would have lean against a ban). Goodstein also allowed him to dodge the best audience-submitted question of the night: “Why are there no progressive Muslim-majority countries with rights for women and homosexuals?”

Hitchens did make several clever, though ultimately not fully convincing, arguments that there is something uniquely flawed about Islamic doctrine. For example, he noted that World War I was a terrifically destructive war, moreover somewhat responsible for its even destructive sequel. The war was fought by now-dead empires, and of these, he added, only one retains support: The Ottoman Empire, the only Muslim one, which radical Islamists seek to restore in the form of the global caliphate.

And Ramadan’s best moments came when he got angry, specificlly when challenged over the limited support he has offered for al-Qaradawi, a cleric who routinely tells his 40 million radio listeners that suicide attacks against Israeli civilians are justified. (Goodstein, who brought Qaradawi up, was arguing that the crisis of authority in contemporary Islam means that there is no way to supersede Qaradawi when he ostensibly formulates Muslim doctrine.) Ramadan admitted to reading Qaradawi selectively, and to agreeing with him about certain things and disagreeing with him about certain others. One of the things he does agree with Qaradawi on, for example, is a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a single country with multiple nationalities, “like France.” Took balls to say that at 92nd Street Y, and while I still disagree, and while he is still slippery, good on ‘em for this.

So, is Islam a religion of peace? The most helpful passage I have read in trying to parse the question Goodstein was trying to ask came from Christopher Caldwell (a conservative with whom I usually disagree). Discussing the Islamic center this summer, he wrote:

There is no Christian equivalent—either for sophistication or influence—to the body of revolutionary political thought that arose among the Sunni Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the middle of the last century, or in Iran in the Age of Khomeini. To say this is not to confuse Islam and Islamism, or to imply that Islam is always and everywhere a violent religion. Nor is it to deny that the scriptural barriers to Christian violence are notoriously easy to breach. … But Islam is equipped, as Christianity is not, with explicit contemporary doctrines of political violence.

It is unhelpful to insist, as HItchens does, on locating the causes for these uniquely resonant “explicit contemporary doctrines of political violence” in Islam’s doctrines; there are a plethora of material factors that have helped them along and continue to give them sustenance. But it is forensically inaccurate to deny, as Ramadan seemingly does, that, as of right now, certain strains of Islam provide greater threats to universally good values primarily espoused by the West than do certain strains of any other religion or doctrine. There are infinite ways to parcel out blame for this, but none absolves us of the burden of that fact.

Anyway, Hitchens got the final words. His prescription? “You need a secular state with a Godless constitution, like this one.” The native Englishman concluded by calling the United States “the last, best hope of humanity.” You could feel him imagining a time when he, mere mammal, would be gone, and “humanity” would carry on as though he had barely been there.

Related: Fundamentals [Tablet Magazine]
No Debate [Tablet Magazine]
Seasonal Migration of the Intellectuals [n1br]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.